Waiting for Lefty

Guy Glover and other cast members of Waiting for Lefty at the Dominion Drama Festival in 1936. After the war, Glover joined his partner, Norman McLaren, producing films at the National Film Board of Canada. This photo was taken by legendary Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh early in his career. Library and Archives Canada, Yousuf Karsh Fonds, e010752218

Seventy-five years ago, a surprise runaway hit was turning Vancouver’s amateur theatre scene on its head. The Progressive Arts Club’s production of Waiting for Lefty played to packed houses around the Lower Mainland and each performance ended with a standing ovation and exuberant applause. The play toured across the country in 1936, culminating in a performance in Ottawa at the Dominion Drama Festival, a prestigious national amateur theatre competition. Waiting for Lefty was BC’s entry in the festival and took home the prize for the best English language play that year.

What made the success of Waiting for Lefty remarkable is that many of the cast and crew were unemployed and/or had no previous theatre experience. It was also Vancouver’s introduction to the workers’ theatre movement that was sweeping North America and Britain.

The Progressive Arts Club of Vancouver was started by civil rights lawyer Garfield King along with Guy Glover, whom he worked with at Vancouver Little Theatre. King was frustrated with the “namby pamby” and socially irrelevant plays being produced by the Little Theatre and approached Glover about starting a workers’ theatre troupe composed mainly of unemployed Vancouverites. They each put $10 into the project and arranged to use the Ukrainian Labour Temple for workshops and rehearsals.

The Ukrainian Cultural Centre (formerly the Ukrainian Labor Temple), 805 East Pender Street in Vancouver's East End. The Progressive Arts Club recruited cast & crew, rehearsed, and performed Waiting for Lefty here in 1935.

There was already a Progressive Arts Club in Toronto that in 1933 produced a controversial play called Eight Men Speak that depicted the persecution and imprisonment of Communist Party leaders under the notoriously anti-democratic Section 98 of the Criminal Code and the attempted assassination of party leader Tim Buck during his incarceration at Kingston. Eight Men Speak was only performed once before the Toronto Police Department’s Red Squad shut it down. The play was part of a major campaign to have Section 98 repealed, which came on the heels of a massive petition of 459,000 signatures collected by the Canadian Labour Defense League (CLDL) that failed to impress Prime Minister RB Bennett.

Garfield King was one of the key lawyers working for the Canadian Labour Defense League, and as such would have been up to speed on developments elsewhere, such as the production and suppression of Eight Men Speak in Toronto. King obtained the script and rights to perform Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty nine months after it premiered in New York, where it was an instant hit.

Garfield King was a prominent lawyer with the Canadian Labour Defense League and producer for Vancouver Little Theatre when he and Guy Glover formed the Progressive Arts Theatre in 1935. Before becoming a lawyer, King was employed as a photographer at Stanley Park's Hollow Tree.

The audience was wildly enthusiastic in their response to the play, which was loosely based on the 1934 taxi strike in New York. Never before had they witnessed a stage drama that resonated with their lived experiences and echoed the dramas that were playing out on the streets in 1935. Years later, one audience member fondly recalled that it was “as if your own life was being played out on the stage … it made your own problems seem more significant and understandable…[and] articulated those emotions which the injustices of the present day had laid in every heart.”

One aspect of workers’ theatre that contributed to the sense of realism was the use of techniques designed to break down the “fourth wall” separating performers and audience. Planting cast members in the audience was one way to accomplish this, but it could also create confusion. One of the actors, Harry Hoshowsky, recalled that at one of the early performances

there was almost a riot during the spy episode, when I was making statements to the executive on stage and Mike Kunka was going to contradict them. He was already making preposterous asides to the audience. The people were almost sure they were at a meeting. They tried to contain him … people moved right out of their seats and bodily tried to contain him … he was a little afraid that he wasn’t going to get up on the stage. We had others spotted around at later performances to ensure that he could get away.

Not everyone viewed the play in a positive light. Local poet and fascist pundit Tom MacInnes condemned the play in one of his radio broadcasts as “the red beast of Moscow.” An anonymous reviewer in a North Vancouver paper called it a “dramatic absurdity,” “foreign,” “crude,” “vulgar,” “indecent,” and “offensive.” In response, the Communist BC Workers’ News pointed out that the main bone of contention was that Waiting for Lefty was a working class story that this and other critics could only read as propaganda, not bona fide art

because the play revolved around workers instead of salaciously portraying the pornographic preludes to fornication in the bedroom farces and sexy bourgeois plays which are manufactured by hacks to satisfy the jaded senses of the exploiters of the people.

Indeed, the play triggered a public debate about whether propaganda and art were mutually exclusive, including a symposium following a performance of Lefty at the Empress Theatre. It appears defenders of the play won the argument with the contention that bourgeois drama could just as easily be read as propaganda since it promoted a middle-class worldview.

Advertisement for the opening of Waiting for Lefty. BC Workers' News, 25 October 1935

In the audience at one of the early performances of Waiting for Lefty was RCMP Superintendent Herbert Darling. He had recently begun a two-year stint with the Vancouver Police Department, having been seconded by the RCMP as part of the campaign to modernize the VPD and fight communism in the city. Darling arrived too late for the relief camp strike that culminated with the On-to-Ottawa Trek or the Battle of Ballantyne Pier (although the waterfront strike was still dragging on).

The quintessential police bureaucrat, Herb Darling was the Canadian state’s top expert on Communism and intelligence. In 1931 he co-authored the internal RCMP report that made the case that the Communist Party was in fact an illegal organization under the provisions of Section 98. The report provided the rationale for the arrest of the Party’s top leaders, the subject matter of Eight Men Speak.

Supt. Herbert Darling, Mountie and amateur theatre critic. Darling was loaned to the Vancouver Police Department for two years to build its intelligence capabilities and modernize its bureaucracy as part of the fight against the Red Menace. Needless to say, he wasn't impressed with Waiting for Lefty. Regina Leader-Post, 31 Aug 1945.

Darling attended one of the early performances of Lefty and wasn’t too impressed. He reported that it was a full house and that “judging from the looks of some of the people in the audience … I would say some of them were quite decent respectable men and women.” As for the play itself, it was

a Labor Propaganda revolutionary spreading drama and the actors are gathered from the local talent in the communistic element of Vancouver … In many parts of the play the language is worse than you would hear in any cheap sporting house, but at that the class of actors and actresses in the play seemed to get a thrill out of using it.

The Vancouver Police subsequently attempted the same tactic that the Toronto Police used to successfully shut down Eight Men Speak two years earlier. Chief Constable Foster wrote to the Attorney General that in view “of the filthy language used, the proprietors of the building where the play was produced have been advised that their license will be cancelled if it is shown again.” The A-G responded that

stage plays are not subject to censorship. Matters of this kind are covered by the relevant sections of the Criminal Code and I feel sure that should the information you have be placed before your prosecuting department, action could be taken against the players for the use of indecent and blasphemous language.

Instead, Chief Foster arranged a meeting between Garfield King and Supt. Darling to discuss Lefty. Darling told King that it was not his place to play the role of censor. He had seen the play and did not like it, but acknowledged that it presented “certain aspects of present social conditions and frankly admitted the right of the author to do this in an art form.” His main issue was the vulgar language used in the play. At one point in the meeting, Darling proposed that King give him a copy of the script and that he would point out the offending expressions. “Indeed this was his own suggestion,” according to King, “but when I pointed out that this procedure would immediately cast him in the role of censor, he agreed that the proposal was not wise.”

After his meeting with Darling, King wrote an open letter to Chief Foster explaining his position and the concessions he agreed to for the show to go on.

It appalls one to realize that in a metropolitan city like Vancouver, an inspector of rooming houses, palmists, restaurants, etc. is vested with the arbitrary powers of veto over a play, which, as his letter indicates, he has neither seen nor read,– in this case a play currently produced and acclaimed in New York and London … Even in England the function of literary and dramatic criticism, with power to censor, is entrusted to a specially trained and highly educated official entirely removed from police affiliations. The scales of judgment in these fields are too delicate for military and police hands.

King did agree to change two words in order to appease the authorities: “fruit” and “sonovabitch.” In the case of the former, King quoted its use in the script:

Labor Spy: The time ain’t ripe. Like a fruit don’t fall off the tree until it’s ripe.

Voice: Sit down, you fruit!

“I’m told that ‘fruit’ has a double meaning and carried an unpleasant connotation,” King wrote, “so we will drop the ‘fruit’ and substitute ‘lemon’ or possibly some vegetable.”

A third offending word King refused to change: “the good old English expression ‘goddam,’” claiming that according to the Oxford English Dictionary it was not blasphemous and could be traced back to Joan of Arc, who used it as a synonym for “Englishman.” Besides, “not only have I Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw and a host of dramatists on my side, but I feel that in this crisis I can absolutely rely on the support of the entire uniformed section of the police force!”

Foster and Darling relented, and the show went on. Guy Glover later even credited Foster’s efforts with ensuring that Lefty continued, noting that Foster was also the vice-president of Vancouver Little Theatre. In contrast, a faculty committee at the University of British Columbia refused to grant permission for a student production of Waiting for Lefty, and the board of a Seattle theatre company pulled the plug after only one performance of Lefty in January 1936.

Mugshot of Stewart "Paddy" O'Neil, taken following his arrest in the Regina Riot. A Newfoundlander and First World War veteran, O'Neil headed the Workers' Ex-Servicemen's League in the 1930s and was part of the On-to-Ottawa Trek delegation that went ahead and met with Prime Minister RB Bennett in Ottawa in 1935. He returned to Vancouver after the Regina Riot and played a union member in Waiting for Lefty. Instead of returning to Ottawa to perform in the Dominion Drama Festival, O'Neil joined the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion to fight fascists in the civil war in Spain, where he was killed. City of Regina Archives Photograph Collection, CORA-RPL-A-300

The BC Provincial Police also monitored the play, but was told by the Deputy Attorney General that the language issue was “more a matter of bad taste than a criminal offence.” He also pointed out that Lefty had been chosen to represent BC in the Dominion Drama Festival. Still not convinced, the BC Police claimed in a follow-up report that the play “was not a bona fide entry in the Annual Dramatic Competition. It was put on solely for the purpose of propaganda and run under the guise of a competing play simply because it would not otherwise have been tolerated by the authorities.”

While language was ostensibly the issue driving efforts to suppress Lefty, the popular assumption was that the real reason was its militant, pro-labour content. Many people suspected that the Citizens’ League, a fascist vigilante/propaganda outfit set up by the Shipping Federation to help crush the ongoing longshoremen’s strike, was pressuring the police behind the scenes to stop Lefty.

For its part, the RCMP mentioned Lefty in its Security Bulletins, intelligence summaries that were regularly sent to Ottawa. The report simply noted that Waiting for Lefty was a hit in Vancouver and cited a New York critic’s impression of the play when it showed in that city:

A Milestone was … the appearance of ‘Waiting For Lefty’, a fifty-minute play on the New York taxi strike … this drama, with its head-on union meetings scenes, its flashbacks into the homes of cab drivers, its action swirling from stage to orchestra pit, and back to stage again … the most directly agitational of all working-class plays written to date in America, it added stature to revolutionary drama.

Unemployed protesters marching past the Empress Theatre on Hastings at Gore, June 1938. Waiting for Lefty played at least twice here in 1936, first when it won the regional leg of the Dominion Drama Festival, and again as a fundraiser for the trip to Ottawa. After the latter performance a symposium was held to determine whether propaganda and art were mutually exclusive. Photo: VPL Special Collections, #1293

Waiting for Lefty wasn’t expected to be a serious contender in the contest to represent BC at the Dominion Drama Festival. Most people assumed it would come down to the Vancouver Little Theatre and the Strolling Players entries. Instead, the adjudicator, renowned British producer Allan Wade, awarded first place to Lefty, giving the performance and its fresh approach the highest praise:

[It was] the nearest approach to professional standard I have ever witnessed by a group of amateurs … [Waiting for Lefty] was one of several plays lately written that will help make the theatre what in its great day it always was – a forum, a communal institution and instrument in the hands of the people for fashioning a sound society.

Vancouver Little Theatre resented that “a cheap piece of stark realism” performed by “a neophyte group of mostly ethnic actors” was selected. Its president, Citizens’ League supporter and anti-union activist General Victor Odlum, excluded the Progressive Arts Club from his post-festival party.

To get to Ottawa, the Progressive Arts Club had to do some serious fundraising. They toured Lefty around the province, including performances at Oakalla Prison Farm, Victoria, and a midnight show at the prestigious Orpheum Theatre that was so popular that BC Electric Railway scheduled extra streetcars to allow theatre patrons to get home after the performance.

In light of the increasing popularity of the play and local pride for BC’s official entry at the Ottawa festival, even Vancouver Little Theatre came around and agreed to perform on a double-bill with Lefty to assist with fundraising. General Odlum even moderated the art-versus-propaganda symposium at the Empress Theatre.

Flyer for the "Tag Days" held to raise funds to send the Progressive Arts Club to Ottawa to perform Waiting for Lefty as BCs entry in the 1936 Dominion Drama Festival. From Stage Left: Canadian Theatre in the Thirties by Toby Gordon Ryan (Toronto: CTR Publications, 1981).

The Progressive Arts Club also held a “tag day,” on the street solicitation of donations to help fund the trip east. Some passersby who hadn’t yet heard of the play saw the “We’re Helping Send Lefty to Ottawa!” banners and asked why “Lefty” doesn’t just ride the rods for free like everyone else.

With proceeds from the tag day and the earnings from 25 performances, the Progressive Arts Club took the train to Ottawa, stopping along the way to further fundraise by performing in various cities. Despite their lack of prior theatre experience, the months of rigorous rehearsals and dozens of performances ensured that the cast and crew were well prepared for the Dominion Drama Festival.

Advertisement for the Dominion Drama Festival. Ottawa Citizen, 22 April 1936

Although Lefty played for “comfortable” audiences as well as the working class in Vancouver, the crowd in Ottawa was the uppermost crust of the nation, and included Prime Minister Mackenzie King, former prime ministers RB Bennett and Robert Borden, Lady Tupper (wife of Sir Charles), and Governor General Lord Tweedsmuir. Surprisingly, considering that many of these people had led the charge against labour radicalism at some point in their careers, the play received a standing ovation and extended applause that coaxed the cast to return to the stage for a second bow. Lady Tupper, who was heavily involved with the Winnipeg Drama League, another contestant, was heard muttering “the God-damned hypocrites!” RB Bennett even hosted a tea-party for the cast at Government House.

Mackenzie King recorded his impression in his diary:

The labour play “Waiting for Lefty” while extreme, was a true picture of the hard life which men are encountering today, and the kind of thing which is bred therefrom. Parts of the play reminded me very much what I myself witnessed when dealing first hand with industrial disputes some years ago [as Minister of Labour].

H. Granville-Barker, the adjudicator, said Lefty “was quite obviously the most interesting thing of the evening,” and that the play signaled a “renaissance of the drama,” but ultimately awarded the trophy for best overall play to another social realist production entitled Twenty-five Cents, which he felt was more nuanced. Nevertheless, the Progressive Arts Club won for best English language play against some of the top theatre troupes in the country.

It’s difficult to interpret the positive reception Lefty received across class lines and by some of the Canadian Left’s most famous arch-enemies. Even Granville-Barker in his adjudication at the Ottawa festival said he found it ironic “that this most comfortable audience so frantically applauded the presentation of this play.” Perhaps because it was only a play despite its obvious ideological slant and therefore wasn’t perceived as a threat to the socio-political status quo. Possibly the authorities backed off their initial knee-jerk attempt to censor the play because they didn’t want to be seen as philistines obstructing a cultural renaissance. In any case, the story of this play shows a softening of establishment attitudes to the plight of the working class in the latter part of the depression to which Waiting for Lefty itself perhaps contributed.

As for the Progressive Arts Club, they produced about ten more plays, but were never able to repeat the success of Waiting for Lefty. The theatrical tradition they started in Vancouver however, remains a staple in the local theatre scene with echoes in the work of Headlines Theatre, Theatre in the Raw, and Vancouver Moving Theatre.

Chemical Warfare Comes to Vancouver

Riots of 1934

Lake Erie Chemical Company brochure. City of Vancouver Archives, Vancouver Police files, series 197, 75-E-7, file 3.

After the First World War, chemical weapons manufacturers looked to law enforcement as a new market for their wares. Writing in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology in 1935, Seth Wiard explained that research and development of chemical warfare munitions had shifted to weapons designed for use against “civilians under conditions where only temporary blocking of their activities would be required, rather than the permanent removal of such civilians from the scene of action.” In other words, police needed weapons that would neutralize strikers and protesters without killing them. 

Seth Wiard was the Technical Director of the Lake Erie Chemical Company. Even though it appeared in a scholarly publication, his article was part of an aggressive marketing campaign to sell police departments on the idea that tear and nauseating gases were effective alternatives to clubs and guns for quelling strikes and riots. Lake Erie and its competitor in the tear gas business, Federal Laboratories Inc., were already making handsome profits selling their wares in Latin America. One salesman confessed that “the unsettled conditions in South America has been a great thing for me … we are certainly in one hell of a business where a fellow has to wish for trouble to make a living.” The wave of labour unrest in depression-era North America represented a potentially lucrative peacetime market for chemical weapons and the Vancouver Police Department was the first in Canada to oblige.

Federal Laboratories

Federal Laboratories metal tear gas canisters, from a display at the Vancouver Police Museum.

During San Francisco’s 1934 “Big Strike,” representatives from Lake Erie and Federal Laboratories were on the scene demonstrating the effectiveness of their weapons in an actual riot situation in order to try and drum up business. 5 July became known as “Bloody Thursday” because two workers were killed that day. One of them was killed by the Federal Laboratories rep, who reported back to his bosses: 

I might mention that during one of the riots, I shot a long-range projectile into a group, a shell hitting one man & causing a fracture of the skull, from which he has since died. As he was a Communist, I have had no feeling in the matter & I am sorry that I did not get more. 

Even though the final tally reached six dead workers in San Francisco, Chief of Police Quinn felt confident that the body count would have been much higher if tear gas hadn’t been used.

Vancouver Police Museum tear gas display

Tear gas gun and projectiles, from an exhibit at the Vancouver Police Museum.

Tear gas was supposed to be a non-lethal alternative to firearms. The problem with police using guns against crowds of civilians, according to Seth Wiard, was that “whatever the provocation may be [use of firearms] is always accompanied by a very severe amount of criticism even if justifiable.” Tear gas was therefore a more PR-friendly weapon for police than guns.

Moreover, while gunning down strikers could bring a protest march or demonstration to a quick halt, it was hardly an effective conflict resolution technique. This revelation dawned on the authorities during a Communist-led strike of furniture workers in Stratford, Ontario in 1933, the last time the military was called out for strike duty in Canada under its “aid to civil power” mandate. Short of shooting the workers, there was nothing they could do to resolve the situation and so the strike just dragged on. 

The Vancouver Police Department was undergoing an extensive “modernization” in 1935, and incorporating WWI technology such as machine guns, tear gas, and intelligence systems into the police arsenal was an integral part of the process. 

Besides tear gas, police also used more traditional methods during the Battle of Ballantyne Pier. City of Vancouver Archives #371-1127

Under the leadership of Vancouver’s new chief constable, Colonel W. W. Foster, the immediate goal of police modernization was to rebuild the city police into a force that could be used to put down strikes, protests, and, if necessary, insurrections. Previously, the RCMP, BC Provincial Police, militia units, private police, and vigilantes were looked to for this purpose rather than city police. Since unionizing in 1918, rank-and-file police were not trusted by higher-ups to police strikes because it was presumed their loyalty ultimately lay with their fellow workers. 

The impetus for Colonel Foster being brought in to reform the police department was the fear that the spectacular 1934 maritime strike that shut down San Francisco as well as ports all along the American coast was going to be repeated in BC, beginning in Vancouver in the spring of 1935.

A woman jeers police during the Battle of Ballantyne Pier. City of Vancouver Archives #371-1126

A woman jeering police during the Battle of Ballantyne Pier. City of Vancouver Archives #371-1126

Local Communists had been elected to the leadership of the longshoremen’s union, and had taken the lead in organizing the unemployed in relief camps across the province. Labour spies reported that the Communists’ strategy was to try to orchestrate a general strike that would include longshoremen and unemployed workers and which could become be a catalyst for revolution. But when the 1700 unemployed workers who had been in Vancouver for two months protesting relief camp conditions left on the On-to-Ottawa Trek in early June, it was obvious that the general strike scheme wasn’t going to materialize any time soon. The newly equipped Vancouver Police Department, along with back-up units from the RCMP and BC Provincial Police, would have to settle for a demonstration of striking longshoremen on 18 June to show their stuff. 

At a mass rally two days before the demonstration, Ivan Emery, one of the Communist leaders of the longshoremen, outlined the union’s plan:

We have heard the rattle of machine guns. I believe we have enough ex-servicemen on the waterfront who are prepared to listen to them again. We are going to elect a delegation and we are going to send it down to Chief Foster, asking permission to go to Ballantyne Pier peaceably to talk to the strikebreakers. If they [the RCMP] will turn their guns on us; if they will shoot us down, then you will know that fascism in Canada has taken off the mask and we are up against a stark reality

En route to Ballantyne Pier, 18 June 1935

Longshoremen and their supporters en route to Ballantyne Pier, 18 June 1935. Victoria Cross recipient Mickey O'Rourke is on the bottom left carrying the Union Jack.

Respectably dressed and led by WWI hero Mickey O’Rourke, protesters headed down to the waterfront where scabs were busy unloading cargo. When they reached the police line at the foot of Heatley, Colonel Foster ordered the demonstrators to turn back. They refused and Foster signalled his forces to attack, triggering what became known as the “Battle of Ballantyne Pier.” 

Police line guarding the entrance to Ballantyne Pier at the foot of Heatley, 18 June 1935.

Heatley Street, 18 June 1935

Demonstrators being dispersed by tear gas on Heatley Street, 18 June 1935. City of Vancouver Archives #371-1132

Machine guns were ready, but were not used against the initially peaceful crowd that day. Instead, police on horseback chased protesters around the waterfront district in the East End, beating them and firing tear gas canisters anywhere they saw demonstrators taking cover.

Hastings Bakery, 1935

Hastings Bakery at 716 E Hastings during the Battle of Ballantyne. The gas cloud likely indicates protesters ducked inside the store to evade police. City of Vancouver Archives #371-1128

The longshoremen’s headquarters at 633 East Hastings was targeted for special treatment, and was raided and gassed twice that day. BC Workers’ News reported that female supporters of the strikers had set up a makeshift first aid station there. Soon after, the longshoremen’s union moved their strike headquarters to the Bow and Arrows Hall at Heatley and Powell.   

633 East Hastings

633 East Hastings was the headquarters of the longshoremen's union in 1935. It was raided and gassed twice during the Battle of Ballantyne Pier, even though it was being used as a first aid station. The police had their own first aid station at the Coroner's Court on Cordova Street.

Protesters retaliated with rocks and whatever other projectiles they could find to throw at police. The fighting lasted for about three hours and ended with dozens of police and protesters in the hospital and several arrests. Leonard Binns, a 21-year-old who happened to be making a delivery in the area, was hit in the back of his legs with birdshot from a police shotgun. Chief Foster insisted that the only guns fired that day were tear gas guns, but Binns was nevertheless paid compensation for his injuries. 

Cops chasing protesters, 18 June 1935

Police chasing protesters, 18 June 1935. City of Vancouver Archives #371-1125

The Province headline the next day blared “Tear Gas Bombs Halt Strikers”: 

When the tear gas bombs were shot it had an immediate effect on the rioters. Many were seen wiping their eyes as they ran. Few in the crowd had seen tear gas bombs used before and they were certainly effective … Royal Canadian Mountain Policemen and city police on horseback were located on Alexander Street, one block from the pier and, following the throwing of the bombs, they swept down on the crowd using their sticks. Many were knocked down. The crowd retaliated by hurling bricks and stones. The police were hooted and jeered at. 

The use of chemical weapons was not without its glitches for the police. Even before the riot, a tear gas canister was accidentally discharged in the police station. During the riot, several officers were forced to dismount when their horses were affected by the gas. 

Mounted police, 18 June 1935

Mounted police going after demonstrators, 18 June 1935. City of Vancouver Archives #371-1131

Prior to the battle, Colonel Foster had sent some of his officers to Seattle for training in tear gas use. He no doubt had knowledge of the lessons learned by police in California in 1934 regarding tear gas use, and as a WWI veteran, he would have had at least some familiarity with chemical warfare. He may have also been swayed by the Lake Erie Chemical Company brochures that can still be found in the police files at the City of Vancouver Archives. The Vancouver Police Museum has a display that includes Federal Laboratories Inc. tear gas canisters that appear to be from the same era. 

Lecco 4

Lake Erie Chemical Co. brochure, pitching their weapons to police departments. City of Vancouver Archives, Series 197, 75-E-7, file 3.

Lake Erie Chemical Co. brochure. City of Vancouver Archives, Series 197, 75-E-7, file 3.

Lake Erie Chemical Co. brochure. City of Vancouver Archives, Series 197, 75-E-7, file 3.

In his history of the Great Depression, Pierre Berton describes some other tear gas moments in Canadian history that followed the Battle of Ballantyne Pier. In the Regina Riot, which crushed the On-to-Ottawa Trek less than two weeks after the Battle of Ballantyne Pier, protesters threw tear gas canisters back at police. This wouldn’t have been possible if police used Lake Erie’s throwback-proof Jumper-Repeater Instantaneous Chemical Warfare Gas Candles. This is what police in Vancouver used to clear the Art Gallery and Post Office of unemployed sit-downers in 1938, according to Berton. During the 1937 auto worker strikes in Ontario, Premier Hepburn was in possession of the same Lake Erie brochures Colonel Foster consulted two years earlier. 


Lake Erie Chemical Co. brochure. City of Vancouver Archives, series 197, 75-E-7, file 3.

As violent as the Battle of Ballantyne Pier was, it was not as bloody as the American strike the year before. Although the Vancouver strike was eventually defeated, longshoremen in both countries continued to organize, and eventually formed into the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) under the leadership of an Australian Communist named Harry Bridges

Tear gas has since become a mainstay in the police arsenal, along with other “less lethal” weapons such as tasers and pepper spray, as well as the VPD’s latest aquisition, an MRAD sonic gun that doubles as a public address system. In light of controversies over the use of tasers, the zealous use of pepper spray at the APEC conference, and the massive tear gassing of protesters at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, it will be interesting to see what weaponry police in Vancouver will favour for crowd control and demonstrations during the 2010 Olympics.